Among comments I received about last week's column was a request for a recipe I mentioned in passing. In writing about a relative and her holiday toffee, I noted that family members still made that candy as well as a peanut brittle that had been handed down. So here is the peanut brittle recipe - but it comes with a story.
As a middle-class kid who was raised in town during the post-war economic boom, I was spoiled in comparison to children of previous generations. Work meant making my bed and cleaning my room. I had endured none of the trials that marked my parents' upbringing during the Depression, and I certainly didn't share the work ethic of people who lived on farms.
Milk came from milk cartons, and candy came from the candy store. That was my world view.
I was 11 years old when I was invited to help my stepfather's aunt make her holiday peanut brittle. Auntie Grace was a slender, white-haired widow in her mid-70s who had moved off the farm after her husband died. She talked incessantly, ending most sentences with the non-question "don't you know," and drove a green and white Oldsmobile, probably a 1953, very slowly all over town. Every year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, she also made batch after batch of the thinnest and crispest peanut brittle ever known.
That day in Auntie Grace's kitchen I also realized that this woman who had been born in the 19th century had lived a life on the farm that had been so demanding I could only speculate what it had been like. I also understood that her experiences had made her a person of superior constitution and that she could undoubtedly beat me in arm wrestling. I gleaned these truths from watching her make her phenomenal peanut brittle.
Among the treasures I have collected over the years is a piece of paper bearing Auntie Grace's handwriting. I reproduce the recipe here exactly as she wrote it in pencil about 40 years ago.
2 cups sugar
1 cup white Karo
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons soda (generous)
2 cups raw peanuts
Cook first three ingredients until (it) forms a soft ball. Then add butter and peanuts and cook until a golden brown. Remove from fire, add vanilla and soda, and stir well. Then pour on a buttered slab.
The recipe stops there. What happened next, the part unwritten, is how Auntie Grace earned my everlasting respect and admiration.
After she scraped the mixture onto the buttered slab, she buttered her hands and mine and waited only a few seconds before she reached in and began pulling the candy in every direction to stretch it thin. She said we needed to work quickly before it cooled, but when I tried to help, the candy was so hot that I couldn't stand it.
As I watched her work, I was in awe. I had never seen a woman, much less a stereotypical little old lady, with such strong hands. She was undaunted by the temperature of the candy and remained focused on her mission, whistling softly in sort of a musical wheeze as she labored. As the candy cooled and the pulling became more difficult, she persevered, giving new meaning to the notion of elbow grease.
I imagined her formidable hands, which had also played the piano and caressed the cheeks of all the children she had known, milking cows, wringing the necks of chickens and performing the other chores that distinguished the rigor of the farm from the leisure of the city. I understood that I was no match and never would be.
The result was a peanut brittle that was so thin in places that you could hold it up to the light and see straight through it. I've not eaten another peanut brittle like it, and it ruined me for lesser versions.
When I encounter the thick brown stuff, I'm not interested. Auntie Grace would have kept pulling until it was thin.
A note: The instructions for last week's toffee recipe should have said to use all of the chocolate for the topping, rather than just half. My apologies for any confusion.